Henry the Young King: Top Star in the Tournament World

By Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik

‘Young King Henry, the king’s son, left England and passed three years in tournaments, spending a lot of money. While he was rushing around all France he put aside the royal majesty and was transformed from a king into a knight, carrying off victory in various meetings. His popularity made him famous…’ – the chronicler Ralph of Diceto, in an entry for the year 1179.

The 12th century saw the rise of tournaments as one of the main features of aristocratic life. As Professor David Crouch points out ‘everyone who was anyone in the western aristocracies took to the fields of northern France…” One reason that aristocrats and knights were fascinated by the tournament was that they could parade their skills and thus win fame. The other was the sheer joy of participating. Of course, they could also reap a profit on it, especially landless knights such as William Marshal. William’s fortune rose with the Angevin kings of England. Promoted by Eleanor of Aquitaine herself he was appointed tutor of arms to her eldest surviving son, Henry (since the day of his coronation called The Young King).

Coronation of Henry the Young King, c. 1220-1240, The Becket Leaves, France. Wikimedia Commons

As Henry and William travelled the tournament world far and wide, their adventures and exploits became stuff of legends, later described in vivid detail by William’s first biographer, the author of The History of William Marshal.

William’s young lord was the champion and patron of the tournaments. And although most of the contemporary chroniclers were unanimous in finding it his unforgivable sin, he won fame rushing all over France and participating in virtually all possible meetings. Thus his career cannot be understood without appreciating how he made the international tournament circuit his very own. To him, as to other young men of his generation, the tournament was not just an expensive amusement or passing fad. It was what made them men of account. This was especially true with the young Henry, who had been crowned and anointed king, but constantly denied real power and responsibility by his father. Ambitious and energetic he had to find other ways to prove himself and leave his mark on the world. And he did.

William Marshal, tomb effigy. Temple Church, London, Photo courtesy of Adam Kucharczyk

There were medieval voices admitting that tournaments arose “not from animosities but solely for training and the display of prowess” (William of Newburgh ) of course the Church thought otherwise and was against such military contents, in which “knights waste away their patrimony, their efforts and even their life and soul, simply out of greed for empty praise and popular reputation” (Ralph Niger). Knights “desire to barter their lives for praise and, careless of their own souls, expose themselves to mortal danger in pursuit of vainglorious reputation” (Alexander Nequam). Even if that was Henry the Young King’s chief motif, and he indeed sought the “vainglorious reputation’ we understand why.  If we are to believe the author of The History of William Marshal, the Young King himself was to explain it in the following words:


It should be a source of much harm to me to stay idle for so long, and I am extremely vexed by it. I am no bird to be mewed up; a young man who does not travel around could never aspire to any worthwhile thing, and he should be regarded as of no account.

In Diceto’s words the Young King was occupied with “knightly matters until no glory was lacking to him”, but what’s even more interesting and surprising, according to him the old king “was happier counting up and admiring his [Henry’s] victories”, which stands in stark contrast to what historians usually say about Henry II’s attitude towards tournaments, namely that, just like Louis VI of France (1108-1137) earlier in the century, he regarded them as a waste of time and money, and serious threat to public order.

Joshua and Amalek at Rephidim. The Maciejowski Bible, Ms Morgan 638, folio 9v, Panel 4

Three years on the road. In tournaments! The Young King, accompanied by William Marshal and his other household knights visited all the most popular sites where the knights from all over Europe met to compete and win fame in “mock” battles. If truth be told, those “mock” battles were in fact dangerous encounters, fought “for real”, in which the need to present their skills often got the better of the knights and their common sense. They sometimes received serious injuries or even got killed while taking part in them, as was the case with Henry’s younger brother Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany (1158-1186) or with William Marshal’s son Gilbert, 4th Earl of Pembroke (1194-1241).


The most popular sites for tournaments took place on the border of Champagne, between Lagny-sur-Marne and Torcy, east of Paris, on the east bank of the River Marne, part of it being now occupied by Disneyland Paris; the great field between Ressons-sur-Matz and Gournay-sur-Aronde (Ressons- Gournay), Picardy, c.15 km northwest of Compiegne;  the flats between Anet and Sorel-Moussel (Anet-Sorel), on the border of Normandy. Henry the Young King and the knights under his banner visited them all. It took them some time to win their first victories, but when they did they were unsurpassed.

On All Saints Day 1179 Henry the Young King and his younger brothers Richard and Geoffrey represented their father, Henry II at the coronation of the young Philip I of France at Reims. Young Henry carried Philip’s crown in the procession and supprted his head during the ceremony. A great tournament followed, held at Lagny-sur-Marne. Henry the Young King and his household knights distinguished themselves that day. Although at some point the Young King found himself in quite a predicament and saved his face only thanks to the intervention of the two Williams, Marshal and de Preux. The sum Henry spent to pay off the knights under his banner on the occasion was staggering: every knight in his service received twenty shillings a day for each man he had with him and thanks to the History of William Marshal we know that  “there were at least two hundred and more … who lived off the purse of the young King and were knights of his”.

Death of Gilbert Marshal, 4th Earl of Pembroke, in a tournament in 1241, 13th century. Chronica Majora, Matthew Paris. Wikimedia Commons

Henry’s untimely death in 1183 came as a shock and left his fellow knights and subjects on all levels of society grief-stricken. Bertran de Born spoke for them all


… all those, who saw you, Bretons and Irishmen, Englishmen and Normans, Aquitainians and Gascons, should be sad… And Poitou suffers, and Maine, and Tours. As far as Compiegne let France weep without ceasing, and Flanders from Ghent as far as Wissant. Even the Germans weep!… When the Lorraines and the Brabancons go tourneying, they will mourn because they don’t see you!

Count Philip of Flanders, the Young King’s relative and friend and himself a great patron of tournaments, voiced the doubts that Henry’s “young knights” must have harboured at the time: “Now those who are poor young knights will have to go looking for their daily bread. There will be nobody again prepared to give them horses, arms, and money, as this man gladly gave them.”

According to the author of the History of William Marshal, 1183, the year of Henry’s passing, was a turning point in the history of the tournament. Never again knightly skills and display were to reach a higher level than in Henry’s lifetime. Nor no later patron as generous, open-handed and charismatic as Henry was to be found. William Marshal and his sons, from whom the author of The History must have heard about the Young King’s tournament exploits, were not the only ones to claim that the golden age of tournament was over when Henry died. His former chaplain, Gervase of Tilbury, said that Henry’s death “was the end of everything knightly”. Writing shortly after Henry’s untimely passing, Bertran de Born sensed it, too:

… You were indeed the guide and father of youth. And hauberks and swords, and beautiful buckram, helmets and gonfalons, doublets, and lappets and joy and love have nobody to maintain them or to bring them back. They will follow you; like all mighty honorable deeds they will disappear with you… (from Mon chan fenis ab dol et ab maltraire)


Katarzyna Ogrodnik-Fujcik is a teacher, amateur historian and freelance writer. She works with different magazines and websites on Polish and European history. She runs a blog dedicated to Henry the Young King.

Top Image: Effigy of Henry the Young King from his tomb at the Rouen Cathedral, France. Photo by Walwyn / Wikimedia Commons


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